All social orders undergo change. Static or stagnant societies are a rare phenomenon. Only in some societies changes are so imperceptible or slow that they give the impression of being static. The myth of the unchanging East was exploded long ago.
Today, we are witnessing revolutionary social changes in this country, so revolutionary indeed that there are few parallels to them in the long history of the human race. We are simultaneously seeking to create an industrial and agricultural revolution, operate a most liberal political system with universal adult franchise and justiciable fundamental rights, and evolve a socialistic system which combines rapid economic growth with social justice.
In Europe and the United States, the great changes did not take place so swiftly and as simultaneously as they are taking place in many countries of Asia and Africa.
Not many decades ago, India was being ruthlessly exploited, not only by British imperialism but also by the Princes, big landlords, jagirdars, capitalists, moneylenders, corrupt bureaucrats and speculators, the common man being nowhere in the picture.
British imperialism has been liquidated; the princely order and the zamindari system have been wiped out; the predominantly rural economy is fast becoming industrialised; the fatalistic outlook of the people, based on superstition and unhealthy traditions, is being progressively replaced by faith in reason, self-reliance and self-confidence; and women, condemned for centuries to a life of servitude, are coming into their own.
It would manifestly be an exaggeration to say that national integration has been achieved and parochial loyalties have been totally shed. Unfortunately, communalism, casteism, regionalism and linguistic fanaticism are still a force to be reckoned with in our political life. But, nationalism has fully caught the imagination of the intelligentsia as well as the masses.
A new spirit is abroad. The nation is on the march. It is fast moving towards economic and political maturity. Rapid social change is perceptible everywhere.
A student of European history is immediately struck by marked signs of social change as he emerges from the middle Ages and enters the modern period. In the middle Ages, the people were sunk in superstition. The Church dominated all aspects of life.
Feudalism universally prevailed. With the coming of the renaissance, a new era opened in the history of Europe. It was marked by the rediscovery of classical learning, by Humanism, by the outburst of paganism and a new zest in the sensuous pleasures of life and by the secularization of art and literature. By the 16th century, feudalism had disappeared.
Protestantism had spread, national sentiment had made its appearance, trade and commerce had greatly developed, and the foundations of capitalism had been laid. The social change brought about with the dissolution of feudalism and the consolidation of central authority gave Europe its first modern look.
The 18th century gave Europe its great rational thinkers and sceptics and one of the greatest liberating forces, the French Revolution with its slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity. These ideals encouraged liberalism everywhere, strengthened the principle of national self determination and promoted Socialist thought.
The Industrial Revolution transformed Europe beyond recognition and while enormously increasing the production of material goods and the standards of living, gave rise to capitalist exploitation of the weaker sections of the community and to imperialism and colonialism.
Social change is a continuous affair in all communities, because physical, biological, technological or cultural forces, individually or in combination, are always operating, creating new conditions, new institutions and new challenges.
Climatic changes and man’s ignorance about scientific and planned exploitation of natural resources, leading to soil impoverishment, destruction of forests and consequent drought, profoundly affected the regions involved, and once flourishing towns, seats of authority and trade routes with a highly developed culture became extinct.
Today, the physical factor in social change is not so significant as in earlier times, because man has learnt to use natural resources more intelligently than before. In modern times, the danger of population explosion and the need for planned parenthood are explicitly recognised, not only in the West but also in Asian and African countries, so that we can say with a fair degree of certainty that very large families and high birth and death rates will in the next few decades become a thing of the past.
With fewer children, parents can afford to provide adequate opportunities for the younger generation and make it healthier and mentally and intellectually more equipped for facing the problems of life. It is not often realised that heredity does not represent only continuity but is also a fundamental factor of social change.
The fact that parents and children and children of the same parents reveal diversity in characters and temperaments conclusively proves this point. The biggest factor in social change is technological. One may not subscribe to the materialistic interpretation of history, but nobody can deny that science and technology have revolutionised our way of living, our view of the universe, our methods of production, distribution and exchange, our means of communication, our institutions and associations, our social relationships, our customs and ceremonies, our fashions and tastes.
Every scientific discovery and every technological invention leads to change in other directions. The deterministic theories of social change are, however, partially valid. Man is not only influenced by his physical surroundings, his biological conditions and his inventions, but he also deeply influences them. He is guided by his culture, his philosophy of life, his political and social ideology, his conception of morality, his ideal, in short, of what constitutes good life. Charismatic leadership—the leadership of great prophets, great statesmen, great thinkers and writers contributes much more to social change than the champions of determinism are prepared to admit.
Society is in a constant state of flux. Is it moving in any particular direction and can we discern any persistent trends through the ages? This question has fascinated the thinkers of the world since the dawn of civilisation and provoked diverse theories.
One view is that civilisations rise and fall and that they all undergo the process of birth, growth, maturity and decline. Another version of the cyclic theory is that the story of man is that of successive ups and downs, of liberalism and conservatism, of freedom and authoritarianism, of asceticism and paganism, of faith and scepticism.
According to Maclver, civilisation represents “the whole mechanism and organisation which man has devised in his endeavour to control the conditions of his life”. Culture, on the other hand, represents man’s values, his achievements in art and literature, his ethical and philosophic way of life, his religion, his recreational activities, his fashions, manners, etiquette, in short, everything that is an expression of his individuality.
Civilisation is cumulative and broadly speaking, it is always advancing, but there is no assurance that we can improve upon our previous cultural performance. Art is a process of creation, not of discovery. Every great drama, every poem, every great novel is a unique achievement. An age may produce a galaxy of brilliant painters or poets whose performance subsequent ages may never be able to rival.
What the Elizabethans achieved in drama and the Romantics in poetry has never been surpassed. It is easy to assimilate an alien civilisation, but not alien culture. Today, Asian and African countries are freely borrowing Western technology and political institutions, but they cannot operate them precisely as the Westerns do, for the simple reason that their attitude towards life, their habits and temperaments, their approach to controversial problems are so radically different.
When we discuss, therefore, the problem of progress, we should exclude from this discussion our cultural activities and concentrate for the most part on social organisation and technology. Even in the sphere of civilisation, we cannot count on continuous improvements.
There are always periods of retrogression and setback. When the first world war ended with a victory for liberal countries and for the principle of self- determination, at least in Europe it was generally hoped that democratic forces would be vastly strengthened and the era of authoritarianism had definitely been left behind.
Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Fascism in Italy and Germany shattered this hope, and the dictators demonstrated remarkable ingenuity in devising measures to crush the human spirit, to arouse primitive passions and to make man a servile creature. The history of the human race is comforting only if we take a long range view of human achievement and ignore man’s aberrations.
There is no denying the fact, despite what has been said by the cynics and the pessimists, that man has made a tremendous advance in the sphere of knowledge. The growth of knowledge is seen most unmistakably in our control over the forces of Nature, which has opened up infinite possibilities of achievement.
Space exploration is a magnificent tribute to man’s knowledge. It is this knowledge which has given man the hope of making this planet a decent place to live in, which has relieved him of a great deal of wearisome toil and soul-killing drudgery, and which has enabled him to overcome the hostile forces operating with relentless fury to thwart life.
Man no longer goes by myths and superstitions. He no longer thrives on metaphysical abstractions and subtleties. He has now a passion for positive knowledge.
It is immaterial whether we call social change an evolutionary process, development or progress. Modern societies are broadly egalitarian. We are not all Socialists, but few people hold today that opportunities for development should be ensured only for the privileged few. Not long ago the concept of planned utilisation of the material and technical resources was unknown.
Today, it is almost universally accepted. This is a most hopeful sign. There is now increasing recognition that the destiny of humanity has to be consciously directed to ensure purposeful and significant living for all classes, that the world is one and indivisible, and that peace and prosperity for all parts of the globe involve universal planning and unity and cooperation. It would be a mistake to dismiss this consciousness of world unity as wishful thinking.
The United Nations may not have fulfilled all the hopes aroused by it, because nations are still reluctant to discard their antiquated notions of sovereignty and are still dominated by the irrational elements in their natures, but, as the rule of law in the domestic field was established after a protracted struggle with private interests, so in the international sphere the rule of law will be firmly established only after a struggle with parochial passions.
The history of mankind does not warrant the fear that the human race will commit suicide. If men learn to control population growth and to use the knowledge of science and technology for the benefit of the entire human race, if humanity learns to direct its own destiny consciously, we can look forward to an era of uninterrupted peace and universal prosperity.
Sociologists may not describe this state as constituting progress, but the layman would not hesitate for a moment to use this term to describe the human situation.